Saturday, December 30, 2017

It Is Margazhi, Chennai Is Singing And Dancing!

The music season is on in Chennai. Corresponding with the Tamil month of Margazhi, this is the time of the year when the city celebrates its love for music and dance with hundreds of recitals in dozens of sabhas in the months of December-January. The weather in " hot-hotter-hottest" Chennai is at its best. Flocks of NRIs return home for a tryst with Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, for a taste of mouthwatering goodies in the sabha canteens, and for a reunion with family and friends.

When it comes to Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam, I am a novice. So don't expect technical inputs on these classical art forms from me! However, I do enjoy going to concerts and soaking in the lovely atmosphere there. It is as if the whole city is enjoying a festival. Maamis in their best silk sarees -- diamonds sparkling in their nose and ears--, NRIs showing their city and its culture to their foreign-born kids, visitors and tourists from other parts of India as well as other countries, connoisseurs from the city who are adept at the art of sabha-hopping honed from years of experience; and students, practitioners and teachers of music and dance are all there relishing this annual extravaganza.

I caught up a bit with the cultural scene during last few days. Chennai as a city rises early. The concerts start from as early as eight in the morning. Usually the morning and afternoon sessions are free for all, while the late afternoon and evening slots require a ticket. I chose a post-lunch Nadaswaram recital by Kollangode R. Subramani and Parali E. Gowtham at the well-known Narada Gana Sabha. The Nadaswaram and Thavil combo presented a high-energy, high decibel performance. I wonder why the musicians were not acknowledging each other through gestures, words of appreciation or smiles. These would have added a lot to their performance.

I tried buying a ticket to the violin recital by Akkarai sisters at the same venue later in the day, but alas, it was sold out. I quickly glanced through my copy of the newspaper to explore other possibilities in the neighbourhood. Decided to try a vocal recital by N. R. Prashanth. It was conveniently scheduled in the auditorium of PS School on RK Mutt Road in Mylapore. The Kapaleeswarar Temple almost next door was going to be my next stop later in the evening so the location suited me fine. I enjoyed the concert a lot. The rapport between the singer, the violinist and the mridangam player was great and that made the recital delightful.The thin attendance in the auditorium was a bit of a dampener for me, but gladly not for the artists.

Later at the temple, it was a vocal recital by an all-women ensemble. Led by the graceful Saashwathi Prabhu, the women sang several devotional compositions. The imposing gopuram of the ancient temple provided a fitting backdrop to the proceedings. It was nice to see Aswini Srinivasan on the mridangam. She handled the instrument with poise and aplomb, earning a place for herself in the male-dominated bastion of the drum.

Another day, another performance. It is Bharatanatyam by Medha Hari. Her slender frame occupied the stage with amazing energy and grace. Considering that it was an early afternoon session, the auditorium was reasonably full with rasikas (connoisseurs) appreciating her nimble steps and movements. After this very enjoyable recital I stepped into another concert that was already in progress in another hall at the same venue. A vocal recital by Archana and Aarathi. It is common for sisters or brothers to perform as a team. I liked what I heard, but not what I saw.The lighting on the stage was so insufficient that the musicians looked dull. On the other hand, the whole auditorium was lit very brightly. It seems it is normal for the lights to be on in the auditorium during a Carnatic music concert. Later, when I saw the sisters at the canteen in natural light, they looked bright and lovely.

I decided to follow the pattern of the previous day and went to the PS School in Mylapore for a vocal recital by Snigdha Venkataramani. It turned out to be a well-attended concert, and very nice too.  What I liked about the recitals was that almost all of them began on time and ended at their stipulated time. There were no felicitations, introductions or speeches. Just artists directly face to face with the discerning audiences!

Photos by Lata
I ended the day with a Kathak presentation by dancer couple Hari and Chethana with their group in the Kapaleeswarar Temple. It was full of rhythm, colour and awesome footwork by the dancers. The flowing costumes of the performers looked magical during the numerous swirls. They even managed a change of costumes between performances making their act a visual delight. Their performance was enhanced by the ambience of the temple, so suited to the dance form. Sitting in the audience and watching them dance, I couldn't help thinking how appropriate the flowing garments are for the whirls in Kathak, while the tight costumes with a pleated fan in the lower garment that opens out beautifully when dancers strike the half-sitting (arai mandi) or full-sitting (muzhu mandi) pose are just right for Bharatanatyam.

Happy with my outings, when I looked up the performers later, I was even more impressed to learn that many of them have parallel careers in diverse fields. N R Prashanth is an engineering graduate in Instrumentation Technology from Mysore University. Medha Hari is a Chartered Accountant. Snigdha Venkataramani is not only a Carnatic vocalist, but also a Bharatanatyam dancer. In addition to this she has majored in Zoology and completed her Masters in Anthropology from Delhi University.

All this is very inspiring indeed!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

जेल में जश्न!

जेल हुआ तो क्या हुआ, आखिर इंदौर में है. और मेहमाननवाजी इंदौर के कण-कण में बसी हुई है. तो अपने मेहमानों की आवभगत में जेल कोई कसर कैसे छोड़ सकता था? मेहमानों को तरह-तरह के भरपेट खाने और नाश्ते नहीं कराता तो इंदौर की इज़्ज़त मिट्टी में नहीं मिल जाती? जेल एक बुरा मेजबान साबित नहीं हो जाता? जेल कतई नहीं चाहता था कि ऐसा हो.

तो वह जुट गया अतिथियों की खातिरदारी में. उसने अपने आदमियों से साफ़-साफ़ कह दिया: सुबह की चाय, फिर नाश्ता, फिर दोपहर का भोजन, फिर शाम की चाय और उसके बाद रात का खाना सारा स्वादिष्ट हो, सबको प्यार से परोसा जाए, सबकी पसंद-नापसंद का ठीक से ख़याल रखा जाए, फल, सब्ज़ियाँ, मेवे -मिठाइयाँ, अचार, पापड़, चटनी किसी में कोई कमी नहीं रहनी चाहिए. सुबह चाय के साथ मीठे और नमकीन बिस्किट, नाश्ते में सेंव-पोहा-जलेबी, दोपहर के भोजन में तीन तरह की सब्ज़ियाँ, दाल, पूड़ी, पुलाव, रायता, सलाद, और मीठा, शाम की चाय के साथ कभी भजिये, कभी कचोरी-समोसा, कभी हॉट डॉग, कभी पेटिस, कभी आलू की टिकिया, कभी भुट्टे का कीस, कभी साबूदाने की खिचड़ी जैसा कुछ चटपटा, और रात के खाने में कढ़ी चावल, पराठे-सब्ज़ी जैसा कुछ हल्का-फुल्का तो कम-से-कम होना ही चाहिए. साथ ही मौसम के हिसाब से गराडू, गाजर का हलवा, दाल-बाफले-लड्डू, आम का रस, लस्सी, शिकंजी, कुल्फी, गुड़ की गजक, आइस क्रीम जैसी ख़ास चीज़ों को भी शामिल किया जाना चाहिए. आखिर दूर-दराज़ से इंदौर आए हुए लोगों को बुरा नहीं लगना चाहिए कि वे जेल में बंद हैं और सराफ़ा और छप्पन जैसी जगहों पर जाकर इन सारी चीज़ों का लुत्फ़ नहीं उठा सकते.

जेल के रसोइये कमर कस कर जेल के आदेशों पर अमल करने लगे. रसोईघर से सुबह-दोपहर-शाम खुशबू के झोंके आते, मसाले पीसे जाते, सब्ज़ियों-दालों में हींग के छौंक लगते, कोथमीर और हरी मिर्च की चटनी पीसी जाती, नींबू निचोड़े जाते, शुद्ध घी में जलेबियाँ तली जातीं और बड़े-बड़े कड़ाहों में दूध उबाला जाता. इतने प्यार और दुलार से मेहमान खुश न होते तो क्या होते? अपने मेजबान की दिलदारी से भावविभोर हो कर वह बेचारे सोच में पड़ जाते कि क्या खाएँ और क्या न खाएँ. कई बार तो उन्हें मजबूरी में इसलिए खाना पड़ता कि जेल बुरा न मान जाए. यदि खाना बच जाता, तो जेल बहुत दुखी हो जाता था. उसने अपने मेहमानों के लिए पान, सुपारी, पाचक चूर्ण, और हरड़े आदि की भी व्यवस्था कर रखी थी. इसलिए पेट भर कर खाने के सिवाय मेहमानों के सामने दूसरा कोई रास्ता न था.

धीरे-धीरे उन्हें इस सबकी आदत पड़ गई. और वे तरह-तरह के खाने खाने में माहिर हो गए. यह बात और है कि उनका वज़न दिन दूना रात चौगुना बढ़ने लगा. कपड़े छोटे पड़ने लगे. लेकिन मेजबान की ख़ुशी और इंदौर की शान के लिए क्या वह इतना भी नहीं कर सकते थे?


यह लेख इस रिपोर्ट पर आधारित एक हल्का-फुल्का व्यंग्य है. कृपया इसे अन्यथा न लें.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Portrait Of My Mother!

A small rectangle of black granite is her canvas. Heaps of white and coloured rangoli powder are her paints. And her nimble fingers are her brushes. Every morning she is seated in the prayer room drawing a beautiful design to welcome the day. Sometimes they are floral patterns, at other times geometric forms, and on birthdays and festivals, it is brief messages in text. The granite slab is her personal space where she expresses herself using the humble rangoli powder. New Years have been ushered in, Independence Days and Republic Days have been marked,  cricket teams have been wished good luck --she is a cricket enthusiast---, and guests/family members have been greeted on special occasions with her lines and letters drawn here. Once when I returned home from the hospital after a major surgery, her rangoli was waiting at the doorstep to welcome and soothe me.

A birthday feast for her daughter-in-law
On some days, the rangoli makes an appearance on the sunmica-topped dining table, often drawn around the plate of someone celebrating a birthday in the family. What is around the plate is of course beautiful. Moreover, what is on the plate is not only beautiful, but also tempting and delicious. She loves to plan menus and cook, serving the items neatly and aesthetically on the plate and in the accompanying bowls.

Her neatness is not restricted to the dining table, it reflects everywhere around the house. The beds are made nicely, the dining table and kitchen surfaces are free of clutter and are gleaming, the living room is always in order, and the entrance to the house bright and open making visitors feel welcome instantly. The shelves in the kitchen are always lined smartly and all cupboards in the kitchen and bedrooms are arranged meticulously.  What is remarkable is that she executes her neatness without compelling or bothering others in the family. Neatness freaks often terrorise other members in the family with their sometimes unreasonable demands. Not her. She just says keeping the house neat is a continuous process, that's all. Needless to say, she is always tidily turned out in a saree.

The continuous flow of house-guests to the house over the decades says a lot about her warm hospitality and her ability to adapt to the guests' needs. She makes them completely at ease, often changing her schedule to suit their requirements.

A colourful kite to mark the festival of Sankranti
She is the central figure in the family when it comes to celebrating festivals. Be it putting up decorations, getting things ready for certain rituals, planning specific foods for certain festivals and putting things back after the celebrations...she does it all year after year. Another of her interests is gift-packing. Almost all the gifts are personally wrapped by her. She loves knitting and makes sweater-cap-socks sets for newborns to this day. Knitting a sweater for an adult is a bit too strenuous for her now, but she has done that a lot earlier.

A plant-lover, she keeps a charming garden of potted plants in the veranda. It is her hobby to arrange twigs, leaves and flowers in big and small vases spread around the house. The arrangements are often minimalist and do not involve buying flowers from the market.

All these are very pleasant and likeable traits indeed, but what set her apart are other qualities: a loving heart that touches almost everybody who interacts with her, her cheerful demeanour that brings joy to everyone around her, her positive energy and enthusiasm, her ability to share others' happiness and to enjoy small pleasures of life. It is this joie de vivre that keeps her young at heart and in spirit. Of course, age does not spare anybody and she is no exception either. Aches and pains in the knees and back are routine affairs that she manages to keep at bay with regular exercise and a walk in the neighbourhood park. A light eater, she eats simple homemade food in small quantities;  her delicate system not allowing her to eat heavy and spicy food.

She is my mother--Aai, as we call her.

Why am I saying all this? Is it her birthday today? No, saying it because generally we do not express our feelings towards our close family members. We make efforts to send greetings and wishes to friends and relatives living faraway, but keep mum when it comes to recognising qualities of people at home. This is just a small effort towards correcting that. A nod of approval, a word of appreciation, a touch of love and care, and a pat of encouragement do go a long way in making your loved ones happy. So why not do that once in a while?

Aai, may you continue to walk your path happily, healthily and heartily.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

No Presents Please, Just Be Present!

At a recent wedding in our family, we had decided not to accept or give any gifts. It was going to be just a civil wedding followed by a party for near and dear ones. There would be no associated ceremonies like cocktails, mehndi, sangeet and the like. In keeping with the small nature of the occasion, we had requested all our guests not to bring any gifts, bouquets or envelopes. 

Today, when most of us are very particular about the kind of clothes we wear, we thought it was not such a good idea to give sarees and shirts of our choice to women and men. Gifting a decorative item for their house would not work too, for the same reason. Moreover, if we gave, we would have to receive too. We were not in favour of that either. So, just to keep things simple, we went ahead with this idea of no-give-and-take and wrote personal messages to our guests to that effect. Also, this was to be our token protest against the custom of gift-giving which has become more of a time-consuming formality, and less of a pleasurable activity in our circles. In some cases, perhaps out of social pressure too. At many weddings, I have seen unhappy recipients criticising the items they have received, only to dump them in the recesses of their cupboards or to recycle them at the next opportune moment. Then there is that ungainly concept of reciprocity lurking behind any kind of gift exchange. We intended to spare ourselves and our guests of all this.

Few wrote back to us saying they respected our wish. Some asked if we would be willing to accept gifts not at the party, but in the privacy of our home. When we said a polite no, they acquiesced with grace. It is not uncommon these days to see invitation cards sporting a line saying something as blunt as "No gifts please" or "Blessings only" to something more creative like "No presents please, just be present" or "Your blessings are the best gift". In many cases, gifts are exchanged privately at home, not publicly at the reception.

Some wondered how they would bless the couple without the aid of an envelope. Just say your blessings aloud, was my helpful reply! But some managed to hand over a gift or an envelope to us at an unguarded moment, at a time and place where we least expected it. A dear friend sent a parcel via post.

We do value their love and blessings, but we wish it came unencumbered, without the baggage of a box, or a packet, or an envelope. My other worry was: how do we prevent those who had respected our wish from feeling awkward if they saw us receiving something from somebody. It would be natural for them to feel bad if we accepted things from others.  Even an innocent greeting card in an envelope would turn heads and raise eyebrows if accepted at the party. It did happen and some people did ask and we told them it was only a card. Now greeting cards are at the boundary line, they are wishes. How can one possibly say no to them?

Our heartfelt thanks to all those who took time to come and personally greet the newlyweds at this important milestone in their lives, and to those who wrote or called to convey their wishes. Special gratitude to those who heeded our request and did not bring anything other than smiles, hugs and good wishes. Thank you so much for supporting our idea and going along with it. Without your support, our idea would not have worked. Your recognition of our plea of no-gift was the best gift to us!

Friday, July 14, 2017

Snapshots From London!

Sharing some recent pictures from my London album. These days, one takes hundreds of pictures when one is on a trip. I did too. Here are a few of them that tell a story or are just a bit different from the rest. Take a look!

I like how the little girl is holding her own in front of the ferocious-looking lion! Look at her posture, spunk and attitude. Did not particularly see her while clicking. Else I would have included her fully in the frame. Was amused to notice her later while looking at this picture. At the Trafalgar Square.

This picture too happened by chance. How interesting that the man and the woman in the sculpture are looking in the opposite direction while their counterparts in real life are facing each other! A nice contrast. At the Buckingham Palace.

Hundreds of lovely ladies and gentlemen waiting outside the Buckingham Palace on a pleasant sunny afternoon. Apparently the Queen had invited them to tea. While the security guards were busy assisting them and maintaining order, the guests were making the most of the opportunity by posing for pictures using the palace as a backdrop. The ladies were at their elegant best flaunting their flowing dresses and flowery hats. The men looked suave in their formal suits. I had no invitation, I just happened to be there and enjoyed watching the spectacle from the sidelines.

Serenity at its best. This lady had found an ideal spot to relax, rejuvenate or reflect on her life. At the Kew Gardens.

I was in a bus going towards the British Museum when this sculpture of the Mahatma caught my eye. I saw what the nearest bus stop was and made a note to stop there on my way back. 

While I was busy taking pictures, a group of people led by a lady descended at the statue. She stood there for a good ten minutes addressing her group, while I waited at a distance not wanting to eavesdrop. At the Tavistock Square.

The dark clouds. The majestic lion dominates the frame, watching the traffic pass by. A contrast between stillness and movement, this makes for an interesting picture, with the red bus so typical of London adding its own charm to the scene. At the Trafalgar Square.

So exhilarating to see the Indian tricolour fluttering gently in foreign skies. The massive building housing diplomats stands gracefully on a leafy street in Central London. I stood there for some time and witnessed a flurry of activity. Officials getting out of a car being escorted inside the building by a young staff member. Noticed that the car had a diplomatic number plate. At the Indian High Commission.

This pair of pigeons was having the beautifully maintained garden exclusively to themselves. The garden was featuring white flowers especially to commemorate Princess Diana who lived in Kensington Palace before her life ended in a tragic accident 20 years ago. She used to spend time in this garden and often talked to the gardeners. A nice tribute to the stylish lady! At the Kensington Palace Gardens.

As I said, most of these pictures were taken without much planning. I discovered these interesting elements only later while looking at them at leisure!

Photos by Lata
I could not have moved around in London without the Underground and the red busses. The bus has already appeared in one of the earlier pictures. Standing or walking on these escalators is an integral part of every Londoner's life. They take you up to the exit and down to the train efficiently and comfortably. Loved the Underground experience!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Stroll Into Summer At Kew!

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, popularly known as Kew Gardens, is a sprawling expanse of green in Southwest London that comes alive in the spring and summer, welcoming throngs of people to its serene locale housing a huge variety of flora. I visited the gardens on a sunny and cool day in June. The weather was perfect for exploring the place on foot. Though, at the end of the day I was left with sore, aching feet, missing several sites that I had meant to go to, but didn't have the time for. Nevertheless, what I could manage to see was wonderfully refreshing and very enjoyable indeed. 

What began as gardens surrounding royal residences several centuries ago is a United Nations World Heritage Site today. Spread over 326 acres, the site has 40 historically important buildings and a collection of over 40, 000 species of plants. It houses an internationally important institute for botanical research too.

Easily accessible by the London Underground, it provides an escape from the hustle and bustle of city life to Londoners and tourists alike. With instructions, maps and directions, the place is very easy to reach for a first-time visitor like me. Having bought my ticket for Pounds 15, I am all set to take in the Gardens. Here are some pictures giving a glimpse of my visit. They are not necessarily in any order, just enjoy them!

The Gardens are a short walk away from this lovely little station. A signboard at the station invites visitors to "Stroll into summer" at Kew. Outside, the street is lined with beautiful houses on both sides. Each house has a pretty garden in front, with colourful flowers and pleasant landscaping.

One of the several splendid paths in the Gardens. One can walk to one's heart's content breathing in fresh air and then take a break on a bench like the one in the picture below, thoughtfully provided all over the park.

I loved the light and the shadows in this picture!

The Treetop Walkway is fun, allowing one to climb 18 metres high into a canopy of lime, sweet chestnut and oak trees for a bird's eye view of the Gardens. There is a staircase and a lift as well.

The elegant Palm House is an icon of the Gardens. You step into the warm and moist interiors to take a look at the tropical plants being nurtured there. The plants look fresh and full of life, in spite of being grown in an artificially maintained atmosphere. Outside, the rose shrubs are in full bloom, adding colour, beauty and a mild fragrance to the surroundings.

Warmer and more moist than the Palm House is the Waterlily House!

Lake and the Sackler Crossing! This is one of the most tranquil sites in the Gardens. The crossing, seen at a distance in the above picture offers stunning views of the lake, trees, sky, and ducks and swans gliding playfully in the waters.

The shapely curve of the Sackler Crossing!

The Rock Garden is aesthetically landscaped. It features mountain plants from six different regions of the world. One can see plants and flowers in abundance that one may never have seen before. 

Photos by Lata
These lovely orchids are on display at the Princess of Wales Conservatory. This large glasshouse contains ten climatic zones. It is home to a huge variety of plant life including ferns, cacti, orchids, waterlilies and carnivorous plants. The sheer variety and arrangement of plants takes your breath away!

There is much more to see and do at the Gardens. This post and these pictures are just a sampler!

Friday, June 16, 2017

"42nd Street" In London's West End!

West End is the Mecca of theatre lovers in London. This beautiful and fashionable area in Central and West London is home to about forty or more theatres that are steeped in the culture and art of this historic city. The impressive buildings with their imposing facades stand with pride, inviting people to experience quality theatre.

I watched a musical, "42nd Street" in Theatre Royal, Drury Lane just a few days ago. Commonly known as Drury Lane, the building is the most recent of four theatres which stood at the same location, the earliest of which was built in 1663. This makes it the oldest theatre site in London still in use.

The building that we see today opened in 1812. It has of course undergone renovations since then. It is a grand structure with opulent interiors. Spread over four tiers, it seats over 2,000 people. It has been hosting long runs of prominent musicals over last several decades. It is owned by noted composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

I caught an afternoon show. The time of the day on a weekday meant that senior citizens formed a major part of the audience. I saw many couples, and single women in groups alighting from their cabs in front of the theatre. Many of them were having a tough time negotiating the steps in the auditorium, but I guess their love for theatre overpowered their discomfort. A large group of schoolgirls was there too, clapping and cheering throughout the performance. 

"42nd Street" is a 1980 Broadway production, based on a 1933 film which in turn was based on a 1932 novel of the same name by Bradford Ropes. The show was a hit, winning several awards in different categories. It is a spectacular offering, with a large cast and energetic dance and music sequences. The opening scene sets the tone for the visual and musical treat that is to follow. First, the curtain opens just enough to reveal a long line of tapping feet and then it rises to show about 50 men and women dressed in bright colours dancing and singing joyously.

The story is about a musical "Pretty Lady" for which auditions are going on. The personal relations between the director, writer, lead performers, new entrant Peggy Sawyer and ageing Prima Donna Dorothy Brock come to the forefront as the story unfolds. Along with the music and dance, there is drama, humour and wit as the extravaganza takes us through the next 120 minutes (150 minutes with the intermission).

The costumes with their feathers and spangles are absolutely awesome. The stage is mostly bare, with very few or no props on it. Backdrops have been used generously to convey change of scene and location. I liked the idea of a small room being wheeled in onto the stage and wheeled out into the darkness in the blink of an eye. Once, a part of a house on two levels was brought in, complete with a working staircase. At another time, the whole stage was taken over by a giant staircase with members of the cast jumping and dancing on it. And the performance is absolutely flawless. Of course nothing less is expected from a long-running and award-winning Broadway show being staged at a prominent theatre in the West End.

It is a delight watching well-known British-American singer, recording artist, and stage and screen actress Sheena Easton play the role of Dorothy Brock, who was a lead star once, but now past her prime. She is domineering, bad-tempered, pampered and tough; but shows her softer side by recognising talent when she sees it. Rest of the cast have done a wonderful job too. 

Photos by Lata

The show features lovely songs. In addition to the songs that appeared in the original film, it includes many other songs that the lyricist and the composer wrote for other films around the same time. I liked "About A Quarter To Nine", "Forty-Second Street", " There's a Sunny Side to Every Situation", and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" a lot. The last one was added especially for Sheena Easton in the 2017 West End revival.

Being part of an appreciative audience is always exciting. But I wonder how much more exciting and fulfilling it must have been for those on the stage who were greeted with loud rounds of applause several times during the show. That indeed is the best part of theatre!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Snapshot From Chennai!

It is a hot summer morning. In Chennai, that doesn't deter people from stepping out. They are busy shopping, running errands, commuting to work, or hawking their wares. Some are walking with umbrellas and caps to keep the sun away.

This is a bustling neighbourhood, the skyline dominated by the ornate gopuram of the ancient Marundeeswarar Temple. A heavily fenced temple tank, and stalls selling flowers, fruits and puja items complete the picture.

Interspersed with the temple scenario are all kinds of shops, restaurants, small businesses, residential buildings, and offices. I am on my way to the bank when I spot a huge orange-coloured figure in the courtyard of the temple. Increased activity and decorations around the area tell me that the temple is hosting some festival. I make a note to come and take a look after I am done at the bank. I have other errands lined up for the morning so it will have to be a brief stop, but I want to do it.

A little while later, I am at the imposing gate of the temple. The large image is set in the entrance corridor. It stands on a platform that in turn is resting on two long horizontal poles. People will lift the poles on their shoulders and take the idol in a procession around the temple. But clearly it is not yet time. The palanquin bearers are waiting on the side, perched on one of the long poles.

Somebody is distributing prasad--that looks like pongal to me--amongst the visitors. Many people are lounging under the brightly painted designs on the ceiling of the corridor. Women in colourful sarees, with fragrant strings of flowers in their hair are buzzing about, gazing in wonder at the pot-bellied idol, collecting the prasad on a leaf plate,or just squatting on the floor soaking in the atmosphere. The men are either in casual wear or veshtis. Two more large idols--one of them is the Nandi Bull--are set on a side. Perhaps they have had their turn of going around on the palanquin, or they will go later.

The whole scene is far removed from the world outside, where it is a normal day and people are at work. This is a tranquil oasis with old-world, unhurried charm. This is quintessentially Chennai, allowing both worlds to co-exist naturally and happily in its bosom.

Resisting my urge to linger for a little longer, I make my way out, but not before taking a picture of the resplendent God.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Revisiting The Kalakshetra Saree

"Art is life. It is character. People think of art as if it were something far away from themselves. You may think of me as a dancer, an artist, but are you not going to be artist also? Have you not some art in you? My idea is that everyone is an artist, for everyone responds to beauty."

Rukmini Devi Arundale

Rukmini Devi is survived by Kalakshetra,  the magnificent academy she founded in 1936 for the preservation of traditional values in Indian arts and crafts, especially in the field of Bharatanatyam. It is a premier institute today, imparting training in classical dance and music to scores of students who go on to become dedicated teachers, researchers and performers of their art, taking it with them all over the world. Spread over a serene campus in Chennai, the institute reflects its founder's views on art and beauty in everything it does. The performance spaces, the classrooms, the lovely kolams, the colourful practice attire of the students, and the overall ambience oozes tradition and beauty.

I have had the pleasure of watching several dance dramas originally choreographed by Rukmimi Devi, and later revived by her illustrious students who are renowned dance gurus now. In all of them, not only the dance steps, but other things like the music and the costumes of the dancers are also presented according to her specifications.

The dance dramas are exquisite, but the focus of this post is on costumes and sarees. Rukmini Devi's aesthetic sense is evident in the beautifully colour co-ordinated costumes, with striking contrasts and unusual combinations. They are always very pleasant, and nothing is ever over-the-top.

Rukmini Devi maintained the same sense in her own sarees. She directed weavers to make elegant sarees for herself, and dance attires for her students. Slowly, a Kalakshetra saree came to be known as a precious possession amongst admirers.

Keeping in mind that textiles were an essential part of her dance dramas, Rukmini Devi had set up a weaving centre in a thatched hut in the premises just a year after Kalakshetra came into being. This not only gave means of livelihood to weavers, it also helped to keep the traditional craft alive at a time when markets were flooded with foreign-made clothes. That small hut has grown into a larger production unit called the Craft Education and Research Centre (CERC) over time.

Recently the CERC has revived some of Rukmini Devi's sarees. They are on view at an exhibition at the CERC until March 25. The original sarees are more than 50 years old. They are also part of the exhibition, neatly spread over white sheets on long tables. Also on view are the recreated sarees. There are 15 looms where inspired by the vision of Rukmini Devi, trained weavers are busy creating masterpieces in pure silk . Those who would like to own a piece of this beautiful heritage, can do so by placing an order for any of the sarees at the exhibition.

Photos by Lata
I am at the exhibition on a bright afternoon. The new sarees, neatly clipped to stands, are fluttering gently under the rotating ceiling fans. An artisan is bent over a parrot woven in one of the old sarees. Armed with a magnifying glass, he is busy transferring the pattern on a sheet of graph paper with dots and crosses. A little distance away, a stunning saree in yellow/orange and magenta is proudly displaying the same motif on its pallu. Besides four parrots, the pallu has two rows of shapely deer. The symmetry, proportions and colour scheme all complementing one another to make an outstanding work of art.

The CERC team is putting in a lot of hard work in creating these sarees. Everything from the yarn, to the zari, the motif, and the colour has to be just right. One feels a sense of loss looking at the original sarees, some in reasonable condition, some tattered. But at the same time, the newly woven creations swaying gently alongside reassure you about the preservation and continuation of this legacy.  

Monday, February 6, 2017

An Evening With "Haathi Mere Saathi"!

I stumbled upon a hit film of yesteryears "Haathi Mere Saathi" (1971) on the telly last night. I have vague memories of having seen it in my childhood. I remember it to be a popular entertainer that most parents took their children to. It was an attractive combo of a circus and a movie rolled into one. Good music, superstar Rajesh Khanna (this is one of his 17 hit films between 1969 and 1971) and the lovely Tanuja added to its appeal.

I watched the film with today's eye that is used to generous doses of technical gimmickry and virtual reality. None of that here. This must have been an ambitious project to undertake at that time because of the extensive use of animals during its making. It is amazing how the numerous scenes have been shot in real time with the four elephants dominating the frames (pun intended!).  In fact, in some scenes you wonder if they were emoting! They walk, run, dance, push and pull a car, cry, perform Ganesha pooja, summon a doctor, engage in amusing tricks and stunts during road shows with their master, and above all; try to save his marriage! Earlier, at the time of his wedding, the feast for the animals was a treat to watch and had me wondering how long it must have taken them to shoot that scene. The elephants, the big cats and others come, take their seats on neatly arranged chairs and enjoy the food served lovingly by their master and his new bride. How cool is that!

I like noticing the actors' makeup, hair and clothes while watching old films. Tanuja with her tight pants and short tops doesn't look outdated at all. In fact, her wardrobe fits well with the current trends. Her hair is another story though. Her makeup could have been better too. Rajesh Khanna wears his trademark guru kurta in some scenes, while in others he wears shirts with a round collar, two rows of buttons and long sleeves without cuffs. Sometimes the shirts are matched with the trousers in bright feminine colours. In one scene he sports a black guru kurta with pink trousers! One can only cringe in horror looking at his wardrobe. In some shots, his shirts are unable to hide his paunch and give away its clear outline showing behind them, a distinct difference from today's actors with well-toned bodies and six-pack abs. The crinkling of the eyes, the bending of the head to one side and shaking it are all very much there. The pimples are unmistakeable (remember the old joke Mummy Dimple, Baby Twinkle, Papa Pimple?) and together with the mannerisms and the wardrobe, make the persona of the much adored superstar.

The film is laced with the usual fare of those days. There is a wicked Munimji, an evil villain, an upright hero with his unusual four-legged friends, a doting dad, and a darling daughter who addresses her father affectionately as "daddy" and asks the hero angrily to "shut up" in their first meeting. The story by producer Sandow M M A Chinnappa Thevar is very predictable, at times jumpy and having loopholes in places. But watching the film more than four decades later, I realize that I didn't notice any of this when I first saw it in a huge cinema hall. I guess, the lure of the big screen, the life-like images of the stars, the dialogue, the music and the ambience of the place was too overwhelming to notice such small details. Also, generally you saw a film only once, so there was no chance of looking at such things later.

The celebrated pair of Salim Javed wrote the screenplay (their first collaboration) but the spark in their talent was yet to appear. Inder Raj Anand's work as dialogue writer is pretty ordinary. Wonder if Salim Javed could have done a better job had they written the dialogue. Laxmikant Pyarelal's music is a winner. All the three duets are sweet and with a lilting tune. For Sun ja aa thandi hawa, they put the lead pair in two hammocks for the entire duration of the song. A novel idea saving them the trouble and the monotony of running around trees. Solos are good too, two happy and a sad one, the evergreen Chal chal chal mere haathi being kids' favourite.

A story has it that Rajesh Khanna used the signing amount that he received for this film to complete the transaction of buying his bungalow "Ashirwad". He did set up his pyaar ki duniya (world of love, also happens to be the name of his zoo in the film) with his family in that bungalow. All those are things of the past now. What remain are such moments that have the power to transport you back to those days!